Once a year, the aspen—or populus tremuloides, Latin for “viral strumpet”—get gussied up and briefly flaunt their golden goods, and the woods become a sort-of strip club for slavering armchair naturalists.
To be fair, the aspen is not without merits, aesthetic and otherwise. Everett Ruess, the ill-fated vagabond and great admirer of the West’s natural beauty, appreciated the colorful contrast the white-barked, yellow-leaved aspen provided among its neighbors and remarked how aspen trees glittered “against the gloomy green of the pines.”
Aspen bark, meanwhile, is prized by a spectrum of wildlife from the beaver to the snowshoe hare for sustenance. That said, the aspen has probably led to the downfall of as many beavers as it has fed; by the early 1800s, western trappers learned to target aspen groves knowing there was a good chance the bucktooth rodents would be nearby.
Aspen are self-cloning, and one stout seedling can spread like herpes. Clones can range for several acres on a single root system.
The beauty of the aspen is short lived. Aspen leaves’ showy transformation from green and silver to red and gold lasts but a few weeks, then they are shed like soiled clothes.
In the summer, aspen and their robust bunches of leaves are warm and welcoming; by mid-fall, the trees take on an eerie cast, their gnarled branches twisting madly and their knots appearing as hordes of leering eyes.
And in the interlude between the seasons, they are tawdry harlots, shaking their vibrant, voluptuous, leafy bosoms for anyone willing to venture into their brothel.
As the dogs and I returned to the car after a hike on a recent early autumn day in Pike National Forest, crunching the mosaic of aspen leaves that already covered the trail like ceramic tiles, the normally quiet county road swarmed with vehicles. The occupants were not there to hike, or camp or even stretch their legs; they were merely there to stop long enough to snap a few pictures of the gaudily glowing trees. And they probably didn’t even tip.